Brewster's Way 1
Everybody has a defining moment in their lives, a moment they can look back on and say: Yes, that’s it - that’s when I became the person I am today. Some of us recognise this moment, some of us don’t.
Mike Brewster was a recogniser. His moment came at the age of eleven. One dull, Friday morning at Steely Junior school he was instructed to stand in front of the blackboard and face a barrage of questions from his classmates. It was a weekly ritual: questions and answers. The questions ranged from What’s your favourite colour ? to more cheeky fare, such as Have you ever seen your mom and dad kissing in bed ? The idea, Mike supposed, was to make him think on his feet.
Every so often Mike’s teacher, Miss Hipkiss - a round, sweet-scented woman - would throw in a more challenging question, something with a bit of meat on it. For Mike she came up with: ‘What job would you like to do when you leave school ?’ to which he answered, proudly: ‘I want to be a journalist, Miss.’
Being a thoroughly liberal, literate woman - and no doubt welcoming a change from the usual boy fantasies of train driver, pilot, footballer, and mercenary - Brewster’s answer met with her warm approval.
The job question was usually about as heavy as it got. But, on that dull Friday morning, Miss Hipkiss broke with tradition and came up with another question - a question so stuffed with meat that it gave Brewster a bad dose of indigestion for days afterwards.
‘And finally’ she said, ‘would you like to tell the class whether or not you believe in God ?’
Crikey. The big ‘G’.
Brewster hadn’t thought that much about God, aged eleven. I mean he’d thought about God occasionally, like when something really bad happened in the world and he wondered why, if God was up there, He didn’t come down and do something about it. But to believe in God - that was something else. Brewster associated believing in God with hymns and prayers and crosses and blood. Believing in God meant going to church every Sunday, like Gillian McGregor did, and having a fish sticker on the back of the family car. And Mike’s parents hadn’t got a fish sticker on the back of their car. Mr and Mrs Brewster were about as religious as a pair of hermit crabs, only veering off in the direction of church to attend family christenings, weddings, and funerals. In fact, now he thought about it, God had as much meaning in his life as politics or The Money Programme: God was there, somewhere in the background, but Brewster wasn’t paying much attention. And that wasn’t believing in something. Was it ?
‘Well, Mike ? Do you believe in God or don’t you ?’
Brewster was beginning to feel dizzy. The question had sent him hurtling into a bottomless black pit as a thousand other unanswered questions about his puny existence suddenly converged. Eventually, in a vain attempt to be provocative, he took a deep breath and said: ‘No. I don’t believe in God, Miss’.
An eerie silence lingered a while before Miss Hipkiss smiled, thanked him, and told him to sit down.
That was Mike Brewster’s defining moment. From then on he was known as the budding journalist who didn’t believe in God. It was like a badge he’d been forced to wear. And as the years went by he tried to wear it with pride.
Brewster became a journalist - first doing time in the offices of a couple of provincial freebies before being taken on as a trainee at The Star, one of the big northern dailies.
It was The Star’s policy to pair their budding reporters with an older, wiser hand, and so Brewster found himself accompanying Mickey Stark (yes - Mickey Stark) around the back alleys and council estates of Britain’s third largest city.
Mickey was straight out of Grub Street - a podgy, balding, chain-smoker with a thick droopy moustache who’d been everywhere and done everything and was ready to do it all again. Mickey was a legend on his own barstool, a man who liked nothing better than to train up a raw recruit in his own inimitable image. ‘For the next three years my word is fucking law’ he told Brewster at their first meeting. ‘You do what I tell you to do and forget about all those poncy fucking editors and sub-editors and fancy fucking columnists who do nothing but sit on their lazy arses all day. You’re going to be out there with me, on campus at the University of Fucking Life, meeting real people - mixing with all kinds, from lords and ladies to the scum of the earth. What I say goes, understand ? And when I tell you to write something I don’t want any trendy, arty-farty liberal crap. I want good honest-to-god copy using the Queen’s fucking English. Got that ?’
‘Yes, Mickey. I’ve got it.’
And so a new double act was born. They were the journalistic equivalent of The Sweeney, with Mickey as John Thaw and Brewster as the poorest man’s Dennis Waterman. Each morning they’d meet up in The Star’s offices and Mickey would hold a one-on-one conference regarding their day plan with the editor, Colin Reece. Reece was a young turk, Oxbridge educated, elevated to the editor’s chair slightly before his time, and Mickey loathed him. He loathed him in the same way a cop who’d pounded the beat all his working life would loathe some wet-behind-the-ears kid who’d walked straight out of university and into an inspector’s uniform. When Mickey went into Reece’s office it was like watching a wily old lion enter the cage of a baby gazelle. And the only reason Reece didn’t get mauled was because he never allowed Mickey to stay in there long enough.
It soon became apparent to Brewster that Mickey was given a free reign by the hapless editor. The highlight of Mickey’s day was lunch time when he’d sit down to a long liquid meal in one of the city’s British Legion clubs. It was here that Mickey would regale the locals with his journo stories - stories about meeting the royals, stories about meeting the stars, stories about sending home bullet-riddled copy from long-forgotten wars. After a particularly boisterous session he’d keel over in the gents or on the car park and Brewster would have to fish the keys to Mickey’s 4.2 litre Jag out of his trouser pocket and whisk him home to his long-suffering wife Dolly. At The Star Brewster wasn’t so much a trainee reporter - more like Mickey Stark’s full time nanny and chauffeur.
In the event that Mickey did fall unconscious, Dolly would slip Brewster twenty pounds and send him off to the library for the rest of the afternoon. There Brewster would engage in research for his mentor’s great project - a book about the allied Far East campaign during World War II which, Mickey said, had been commissioned by a ‘leading London publishing house.’ Mickey’s father had served in India and Burma and Stark jnr’s outline had initially concentrated on the road to war. But, during the time Brewster worked with him, Mickey’s research brief slowly expanded so that it encompassed not only the campaign in the Far East but a thorough history of the period from1933, when Hitler became chancellor, to 1957, when Bill Haley & The Comets released Rock Around The Clock. Whether Mickey ever used the reams of hand-written notes, Brewster never found out. As for the book, well, it never saw the light of day.
Occasionally, though, they worked. Vandalism, frightened old ladies, and the ever-growing menace of glue-sniffing pre-pubescents were Mickey’s stock-in-trade - stuff that helped remind the middle classes to keep their front doors locked at night.
“Keep it simple and don’t be afraid to add spice” was Mickey’s journalistic motto. When his liver collapsed and he took early retirement Brewster was left feeling as if he’d lost his own father.
Part 2 here: